Chapter 1: The Barren Queen CHAPTER 1 THE BARREN QUEEN
Midsummer, the All-Mother’s Year 501 In the Holy City, Sestia Khara
On the eve of the Sun Rites, Khara dha Ellimi awoke alone in the jet-black dark.
Despite the too-soft, too-large beds their Sestian hosts had set aside for her delegation, she’d fallen asleep quickly enough, soothed by the nearness of her fellow Scorpicae. The steady, measured breathing of a dozen warrior women at rest had been her lullaby. Yet she awoke to find silence her only companion. Soft, rumpled beds all around her lay abandoned.
Khara knew, of course, what her warriors had gone to do. She’d done it herself nine years running, in this very city, years ago. At ten-and-five she’d made her first journey to Sestia to celebrate rites. She’d returned to Scorpica with a belly set to swell, as did so many warrior sisters, their seed watered with a man’s rain. The annual Moon Rites or rarer Sun Rites, in this sense they differed little: the Sestian priests, the Xaras, encouraged pleasures for all. Pleasures honored the God of Plenty and Her consort, they said. The warriors of Scorpica, hard-edged and lean with muscle, their dark hair shorn nearly to their scalps, laughed behind their hands at the long-haired priests’ solemn piety. Some warriors believed in the God of Plenty and some did not. They pursued pleasure for pleasure’s sake, not for Hers.
Khara felt as if the thick mattress were trying to swallow her slowly, like a fangless snake. She struggled upward and almost fell from the raised bed, not used to a perch so high. Scorpion mokh these pilgrimages, she thought. Next time I’ll stay home.
But by the next Sun Rites, five years from now, would she still be queen? By then she’d be nearing her fortieth year. It would be foolhardy not to consider passing the crown, though she had no daughter to receive it. So she had surveyed all her subjects, analyzed their strengths and weaknesses, planned for succession as she would for any campaign, and chosen as her protégée Mada dha Shodrei. Who had, like the others, vanished into the Sestian night.
Once steadied, Khara paced the dark room, her bare feet landing soundlessly on the cool stone floor. During the Sun Rites, the enormous, gleaming-white central building of the Holy City—both palace and temple—housed dozens, even hundreds, of visitors. Warriors could have their pick. Khara knew that some Scorpicae were strategic in their pleasures, choosing to bed particular men for their strength or intelligence, for traits they wanted in the next generation of warriors. She herself had never been so deliberate. But she suspected Mada would be. Her keen strategic mind was one of the chief reasons Khara had chosen her.
The other reason she’d chosen Mada was her daughter.
Tamura dha Mada was ten years old and already deadly with a bow, toting a swaying brace of red squirrels or plump rabbits home from the hunt even when far older hunters returned empty-handed. If Khara made her choice of Mada official—naming a woman who already had a daughter, and one clearly fated to grow into a talented warrior—the next succession, unlike this one, would never be in question.
The door opened with the faintest of creaks to admit a shadowed figure outlined by the lamp she bore, and Khara had the odd feeling she’d summoned Mada just by thinking of her. Instead it was Gretti, the youngest of their delegation at a mere ten-and-five, the keeper of the ceremonial blade. Even in the faint light Khara could identify her easily: slender in shape, her full lips pursed in concentration, her step tentative. Her sister Hana had been bladebearer five years before, an unusually capable one, but Gretti had none of her sister’s easy confidence. She held both of her discarded sandals in one hand, strings dangling. Her leather vest had been tied in haste. Without looking at Khara she crept to her own bed, lifted the soft mattress. When she saw the muted glint of the metal underneath, she breathed an audible sigh.
“It was safe here,” Khara said.
The girl wheeled, clearly surprised. She would need to learn awareness of her surroundings. “I was worried. So I returned.”
With a wry look at the slapdash ties of her vest, Khara said gently, “If you’d told me you were going, I would have reassured you. Then you could have taken your time.”
Before Gretti could respond, movement in the doorway caught Khara’s eye.
Stepping into the room, sure and silent, was Mada herself. Even with cattle-hide sandals on her feet, her footfalls made no noise. A bit shorter than her queen and broader in the shoulders, with the long, ropy muscles of a born runner, she stretched luxuriantly as she came.
“My queen,” she said. “It is time we were all abed.”
“We all were, I suspect,” said Khara. “Just not here.”
Mada smiled with obvious satisfaction. “Just doing our part to serve the Holy One.”
“Did you bed a Sestian, then?” asked Khara, an impolite question. She could see Gretti’s jaw slacken in surprise out of the corner of her eye, but she kept her gaze on Mada, testing her temper. If she was too hotheaded to rule, it wasn’t too late to choose a different successor. Nothing had yet been announced. “Did he call out Her name?”
Unruffled, Mada said, “I’ve more of a taste for Arcans, when I can find them. Do you remember what you used to choose, or has it been too long?”
She was saved from needing to answer—Mada seemed to want an answer, her eyes bright and expectant like a bird’s—by the return of two more warriors, their lips swollen and limbs loose. There was no light yet from the single high window, but Khara knew that morning was growing closer. No more sleep for her tonight, then.
The returning warriors did not seem interested in sleep either, conversing in the low hum of bees drunk on sunlight, running a wet cloth from the basin across their shoulders or elsewhere, unpacking and repacking the bags they had carried with them from Scorpica in preparation for the long journey home.
Khara listened to their conversations while pretending not to and donned the ceremonial robe she would wear for the Sun Rites. The other queens would wear their hair loose, per tradition; hers was too short to wear any other way. Gretti polished the blade over and over and Khara had to force herself to look away. The blade was sharp and deadly. It did not need to shine to do its grim work.
In what seemed like minutes, a soft but distinct chime sounded through the thick wood of the door to their chamber. Every warrior’s head rose.
“All ready,” said their queen, a statement, not a question, and opened the door to admit the Queensguard.
Four warrior women, two closer to Khara’s age and two to Mada’s, stood arrow-straight in the hallway. The warriors of the Queensguard wore long cloaks of pale wool to show their current allegiance to Sestia, the swirl of a ram’s horn stamped into the center of their leather shields. They were armored underneath.
“Queen,” said the tallest. “It is time. You have the blade?”
Khara turned to the girl. It was her moment. “Gretti,” she said.
In a flash the girl had sheathed the knife and brought it to her, turning the handle and presenting it, reverently, by the gleaming bone hilt.
Khara took the knife in her hands, then opened her palms with the sheathed blade flat on top, ready to bear it in front of her like an offering. Ever so slightly, she squared her shoulders.
“Will you follow me, please?” asked the shortest of the Queensguard, her tone hushed and formal.
“Yes,” said Khara. “We are ready.”
The queen of Scorpica had three responsibilities during the Sun Rites. One was to make the long journey here to bring the holy blade to be used in the ceremony. No substitutes were accepted; the queen herself must attend. The second was to eat a ritual meal of fresh red cherries with the other queens the day before the ceremony and affirm her participation. The third was to attend the ceremony itself, bearing the blade and handing it to the High Xara to wield, which was Khara’s least favorite of the three by far. The scent of blood alone did not disturb a warrior, and yet, how blood smelled to her depended so much on whose blood it was and how it had been drawn. Blood shed in the Sun Rites smelled like rust and rot, like overripe figs in a vulture’s beak. Even as she saw it bright and fresh, shed in the moment, to her it always stank of decay.
But there was no option not to attend the rites, not for any of the five ruling queens. While only the Sestians worshipped the God of Plenty above all others, none of them knew what might happen if any queen ignored the summons. Were the Sun Rites a dam that kept back a flood of pestilence and famine? Did their own gods expect their participation, even if the sacrifice wasn’t made in their name? They could not know unless they failed to attend. No one yet had thought her curiosity worth the risk.
So the queen of Paxim negotiated and secured promises of attendance, the queen of the Bastion brought the precious Book of Worlds to record the ceremony, the Arcan queen came as the messenger of Chaos, and she, the queen of Scorpica, delivered the holy blade. The queen of Sestia herself, the High Xara, would be the one to wield it.
As she followed the Queensguard out of the palace and toward the amphitheater, Khara could think only of how eager she was to have today’s rites done with. Perhaps this would be the last time she’d ever walk this road. If she named Mada her successor and yielded the crown, she need not come this way again. She felt a pang of regret at the thought, but in the same breath, relief.
She would miss the cherries, though. Their like did not thrive in Scorpica’s cooler, wilder northern clime. Perfectly ripe, bursting with juice, so fresh off the tree they were still warm from the sun. She knew the ritual was chosen for the symbolism—all five queens left the sacred grove afterward with stubborn crimson stains on their lips, on their fingers—but the taste was so exquisite, even the memory set her mouth to watering.
When they arrived at the amphitheater of gleaming stone, they surrendered their weapons to the guards—all but Gretti—and passed through the final gate. Then they descended the long, long stairs, heading for the dais where the ceremony would take place.
The ritual dances began as they approached.
The dancers, dozens of them, were dressed simply in flowing, short tunics, the girls and women with their hair piled high, the boys and men wearing headdresses of ram’s horns. They acted out the beginning of history, beginning with the All-Mother creating the world, then birthing Her three daughters Velja, Sestia, and Eresh—Chaos, Plenty, and Death—to help Her create humans, animals, and plants to cover it. Sestia brought life, exhaling Her divine breath into mouths, bills, and snouts, placing feet and paws and hooves on the earth to explore far and wide. Eresh built the Underlands to welcome the spirits of humans, their shades, once their time on earth was done. Velja introduced all the things people most wanted and most feared—pain and longing, joy and satisfaction, hope, envy, despair—to create balance between life and death, ensuring that the only certain thing in this world would be uncertainty.
A horn sounded, bringing Khara back to herself. It was time. With the other queens she moved forward as the rest of their delegations stepped back, taking positions in the amphitheater’s front row. The dancers slowed their movements, easing away, stepping aside.
The mood changed to a crackle of anticipation, a thousand spectators drawing in and holding their collective breath.
Eight muscular women strode into the gap where the dancers had been, each set of four bearing one of the ceremonial bone beds. These they set in place, one end firmly anchored to the platform and the notched end hovering above the open-mouthed bins of seed grain below. What happened in those bins would determine whether the next year’s crop was plentiful or meager. All their hopes, not just Sestia’s but the world’s, rested in the golden cradle of that grain.
Then the sacrifices were led forward, their feet bare and cautious in the dust. Once on the dais, they were bound to the bone beds, each head fitting neatly into its notch, each long, smooth throat exposed. A girl on the cusp of becoming a woman. A boy on the cusp of becoming a man. Neither, thought Khara, was fated to live long enough to fulfill that promise.
Some years the sacrifices struggled and some years they didn’t; Khara didn’t know what made the difference and she couldn’t let herself care. She only looked away from their accusing eyes, and when the four witnessing queens were called forward to test the bindings, she checked to make sure the knots were secure. It was bad enough to know you were going to die. It would be worse, she thought, to think that you had some chance of escaping that death and then meet it anyway.
“You are satisfied?” said the High Xara, officially beginning the sacrifice.
“We are,” replied the other queens, as one.
The ceremonial horn sounded again, cutting through the air as dawn began to lighten the sky. The women and men in the amphitheater stood rapt. The horn’s last long note faded and died above their assembled heads.
“Queen of Paxim, diplomat and dealmaker,” the High Xara began. Though she addressed the purple-robed, dark-eyed woman, her words were for all, spoken in a voice nearly as sharp and resonant as the blast of the horn had been.
“Have you brought forth all five queens from across the known world to play their roles today?”
“I have,” Heliane answered loudly, proud, firm. Her dark hair hung all the way to her waist; freed of its usual braids, it flowed down her back like a cloak.
After a pause, the High Xara turned to the next queen, her movements formal and spare. “Queen of the Bastion, the scribe of our holy rite.”
“Stand you ready to record what we do here today?”
The oldest queen, her soft chin and cheeks crumpling inward like an overwintered apple, said, “I do.”
“Queen of Scorpica, battle-driven and strong.”
Khara raised her chin and met the priest’s steady eyes, forcing herself to match strength with strength. “Yes.”
“Will you bring forth the blade sacred to the Holy One for the sanctified task before us today?”
“I will,” said Khara, using her voice of command.
“Queen of Arca,” called the High Xara to the final queen in the semicircle, “I call upon you to speak with the lips of Chaos.”
There was always a pause, a tension, at this moment in the ceremony. No one knew what might happen. Chaos Herself was here in the form of her earthly avatar. Even those who did not worship the God of the Arcans could not help believing in Her enough to fear Her caprice, deep down.
When the queens of Arca were called upon in these ceremonies, their god Velja moved some to take drastic actions and moved some not at all. Oft-told stories remembered the queen five generations before who’d leapt from the dais and thrown herself in front of the ceremonial blade, dying in place of that year’s sacrifice. An earlier ruler had stolen a Scorpican pony and galloped through the rites as naked as the night her mother birthed her. The Arcan queen Mirriam standing before them today had ruled many years, her proud, hooked nose and bright, hawklike eyes unchanged for decades. And though she had ruled so long, they still did not truly know her. She might do nothing. She might do anything.
The silence lay over the crowd in the amphitheater like a blanket, stretching out, unbroken.
Then the queen of Arca said, with a faint, quizzical air of surprise, “I am moved to leave this place.”
And she did just that, stepping off the dais toward the spectators, taking the long walk up the stairs toward the far exit. Heads everywhere swiveled to watch her as she went.
Khara looked at the High Xara, whose eyes did not drift from the dark-robed queen as she mounted the seemingly endless steps up and away. Once the queen of Arca was gone, it seemed to Khara that the High Xara breathed a sigh of relief. An instant later, the priest’s face was blank and still as a mask. Perhaps Khara had imagined that moment of humanity.
“Let the God be fed,” the High Xara’s voice rang out.
It was time for Khara to fulfill her obligation.
She turned the blade in her hand, wrapping her fingers loosely around the leather sheath, and offered it to the High Xara. The priest took it in a smooth, practiced motion.
The crowd began to stir then, watching, shifting, breathing, and Khara knew there was no way she could have heard the sound of the sharp blade sliding out of the hardened leather. Yet that was what she thought she heard, the metal whispering, its parting almost regretful.
Khara bowed her head.
The High Xara struck.
A thousand pairs of eyes watched the bare blade come down, first into the chest of the girl-almost-woman, then into the chest of the boy-almost-man, but Khara’s were not among them. She continued not to watch as both of the sacrifices’ throats were slit, first the boy’s cries silenced, then the girl’s. She didn’t need to see to know. Blood coursed down through the notches of the bone beds onto the seed grain, completing the ceremony, blessing the next year’s planting. She never looked up. Instead she stared down at her hands, limp and unmoving, the juice of yesterday’s cherries still staining her fingers a lingering, lasting red.